Domestic Violence: Why do laws not protect us?

Each month the KCL Women & Politics Societyhas a distinct focus around which events, posts, resources and a single Clandestine article will focus. This month’s theme is Violence Against Women, and the article will focus on the issues related to legal protection from domestic violence and abuse.

[Featured Image: A woman with her back turned to the camera. On her back, the words “Love Shouldn’t Hurt” are written]

“Violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men.”

Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993)

According to the UN the number of countries with legal protection from domestic violence has risen from 45 nations in 2003 to 125 nations in 2011 – an overall positive development. Yet, the same report found that 127 countries still have no laws addressing the question of marital rape. Furthermore, in 2018 the World Bank estimated that more than 1 billion women live without legal protection against domestic sexual violence, and that 1.4 billion women lack the protection against domestic economic violence. The need for implementation of laws to protect these women is evident and should need no further explanation nor debate. What does however warrant a debate is whether the women who do enjoy protection against the different forms of domestic abuse, truly do enjoy it. Do the different domestic violence laws truly protect women from domestic violence? Do they protect men from domestic violence? Is this a women’s only issues? And are implementing laws against domestic violence enough or does more need to be done to protect women?

As this article is written in association with the KCL Women & Politics monthly theme Violence Against Women, it will only briefly touch upon the concept of domestic violence against men. It should be noted that yes, men too are subjected to domestic violence and abuse. However, that the challenges facing male victims of abuse are, in some areas, different to those which face female victims of abuse. Men who experience abuse and violence from their partner, suffer even further under the perpetuated stereotype of the male villain and female victim, and a widespread toxic idea that men cannot be victims. Yet, a growing body of international research show that men and women suffer abuse by their intimate partner in increasingly equal proportions. The issues entangled with the lack of focus on men who suffer abuse, the stigmatization of men who come forwards after suffering abuse, and the actual fact that men suffer abuse, are many, and would require an entirely different piece of writing. So, due to the nature of the theme, Violence Against Women, this article will focus primarily on women who suffer domestic abuse, and the lack of protection and intervention they experience. 

Although 125 nations have some form of legal protection for those who suffer abuse from an intimate partner or spouse, some of those country do very little to practice protection from abuse. This is largely unsurprising considering the overall tendency of some countries to not uphold the laws under which they ought to govern. However, unlike many other areas, domestic violence is an area in which there is little international involvement. In 1993 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (DEVAW), however, like anything else adopted by the UNGA, it is not legally binding, but rather a statement of principle to the international community. As such, the DEVAW turns out to be nothing but empty words when women are in fact subjected to abuse and find no national or local laws willing to protect them. Frustrated with the lack of international intervention, some have tried to argue that domestic violence should fall under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and as such victims of abuse should and could be protected by institutions fighting human rights abuses. However, this argument has failed at multiple occasions due to the traditional view that international law surrounding human rights violations apply only to governments and their representatives, not private actors as is the case with intimate partner assault. 

Even the few countries in which laws exist and are upheld, issues persist around the legal protections available to women. This is because most – if not all – of the laws appear to be punitive rather than preemptive. So, while laws can punish perpetrators of abuse after said abuse occurs, they cannot prevent the abuse from happening. This lack of foresight and preventive measures are a major issue, as violence leads (unsurprisingly) to long-term negative and, sometimes, dramatic mental and physical health consequences. Furthermore, according to the World Bank, experiencing violence and abuse from an intimate partner contributes to a woman’s increased absenteeism from work and limits her mobility, thereby reducing productivity and earnings – an area where women already have plenty of factors working against them simply because they are women.  

This piece demonstrates only a fraction of the issues surrounding legal protections available to women suffering domestic abuse. The lack of protection is obviously the first issue, however, alongside that comes the lack of international protection and preemptive laws. It is not enough to prosecute perpetrators once the damage is done, if we truly want to protect women, we should protect them from ever experiencing abuse in the first place. We should treat the abuse women face from intimate partners as a violation of their fundamental human rights to safety. Yet, we live in a world where we can’t even seem to agree on the fact that marital rape is an actual issue. Where only 125 countries have laws allowing the arrest, prosecution and sentencing of those who beat, abuse and rape their intimate partners. A world, where women’s rights still aren’t human rights even 25 years after Hillary Clinton first said so. All in all, we live in a world where women are barely protected from domestic abuse and violence – and that is a disgrace.


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